New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith and a group of Republican and Democrat leaders in Congress introduced a resolution Tuesday to urge the State Department to add Nigeria to its annual list of countries that violate religious freedom, known as the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list.
The resolution also calls for the appointment of a special envoy to monitor and combat human rights violations in the region.
Co-sponsored by Arkansas Republican Rep. French Hill and Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, the resolution will signal U.S. commitment to religious freedom across the world, especially in Nigeria.
“Last year alone, 5,014 Christians were killed in Nigeria — accounting for nearly 90% of Christian deaths worldwide as well [as] 90% of Christian kidnappings across the globe,” Smith said in a Tuesday press release. “The Biden administration must act immediately and redesignate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern to mitigate this alarming and growing threat to religious liberty.”
Despite evidence of rampant human rights violations — including massacres, murders, and kidnappings — against Christians and religious minorities in Nigeria, the U.S. State Department under the Biden administration removed Nigeria from its CPC list in 2021 and kept the country off the list again in 2022.
Sponsors of the resolution questioned why the designation was removed.
“In 2020, Nigeria was a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Despite little having changed in Nigeria’s treatment of religious freedom since then, the Biden Administration continues to leave Nigeria off the CPC list for political gain. This resolution sends an important message to the Biden Administration and the Government of Nigeria that the U.S. Congress sees what is happening there and will continue to speak out against the ongoing violence and the government’s inadequate response,” Hill told CNA.
“The Biden administration’s totally unjustified decision to retreat from the noble and necessary fight to protect victims of religious persecution puts even more people in jeopardy,” Smith said.
Sean Nelson of Alliance Defending Freedom International told CNA that the CPC list is “the most powerful tool the U.S. government has to influence the religious freedom situation in other countries.”
Robert Destro, former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under the Trump administration, told CNA that the resolution is “the beginning of a coalition-building exercise” to bring attention to and unify Congress in support of persecuted Nigerians.
Hill, who was recently appointed to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced plans to introduce the resolution Tuesday morning at a meeting of advocates for Nigerian religious freedom at the Belmont House, a center for Catholic community on Capitol Hill. Hosted by Aid to the Church in Need, the pontifical foundation supporting persecuted Christians, the meeting brought together religious freedom advocates in Washington, D.C., for the International Religious Freedom Summit.
Bishop Jude Arogundade of the Diocese of Ondo, Nigeria, participated in the Belmont House meeting via video call. According to Arogundade, the persecution of Christians in Nigeria is a “crime against humanity.”
Arogundade’s diocese suffered a terrorist attack on Pentecost Sunday 2022 in which 50 Catholics attending Mass were killed at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Nigeria’s Owo state. Among the Christians massacred were victims as young as 2 and 3 to as old as 85.
The situation is dire, Arongundade told the group, citing recent attacks on Christians.
Earlier this month a Catholic priest, Father Isaac Achi, was burned to death in his rectory by armed bandits. Arogundade said that he “will continue to speak out” but noted that he can only travel in his home country accompanied by armed guards.
The Nigerian bishop told the group that upcoming elections in the country offer Christians some hope. Members of the ruling All Progressives Congress party have ties to terrorists, he said.
Those who “are supposed to make things better, they are the ones involved in attacks here,” he told the group.
Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the group that terrorists in Nigeria continue to act with “impunity” and are rarely held accountable for their crimes.